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A plan to offer “new and improved travel choices” to drivers making their way into the nation’s capital Monday morning hit drivers hard in the wallet, as tolls on one stretch of I-66 soared to as high as $34.
The dynamic tolling scheme rolled out Monday on I-66 express lanes inside the Capital Beltway in northern Virginia now opens the road up to single drivers during rush hours, as opposed to just carpoolers and vehicles carrying two or more people.
“It’s going to take some time for us to kind of get everything smoothed out and see what those toll prices are going to be consistently,” Jenni McCord with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) told WTOP.
VDOT’s Michelle Holland told FOX5 the “tolls are dynamic” and the prices seen Monday morning were in line for what they expected during peak rush hour.
"It's based on the volume of traffic and the number of drivers that are willing to pay the toll,” she said.
But by 8:40am Monday morning, a website set up by the state of Virginia to estimate tolling prices said it would cost a whopping $34.50 to travel from an I-66 entry point near Merrifield, Va., across the Potomac River and into Washington, D.C. The 11-mile drive without traffic usually takes around 13 minutes, according to Google Maps.
A FOX5 reporter said a similar route cost only $8.50 around 5:30am local time, with few cars on the road.
“Hubby is Fed govt employee - paid $9.50 on 66 one way. How do we expect govt employees to afford $20/day tolls and no adjustment to salary?” one Twitter user wrote.
“Calm down people,” wrote another. “Transit and HOV is still free on I-66. Single drivers were completely restricted before. Now there’s an option. Toll revenue will support transit.”
The tolls are in effect from 5:30am to 9:30am local time eastbound, and 3:00pm to 7pm westbound. It is free for drivers at all other times.
Before Monday, AAA Mid-Atlantic estimated a third to half the number of drivers on I-66 in that area were ignoring the carpool-only rush hours rule, WMAL reported.
“By allowing you to use I-66 Inside the Beltway during peak hours by paying a toll, you’ll have a more reliable trip since travel speeds and demand for the lanes will be managed through dynamic tolling,” a Virginia government website states about the plan, adding it took “many years of study” to “expand travelers’ access to the corridor, provide reliable travel times, and offer new and improved travel choices.”
The number of drivers on I-66 fell Monday morning amid the toll rollout, WTOP reported, adding the George Washington Parkway, Virginia Route 123 and U.S. 50 were seeing more vehicles.
All vehicles using the toll lanes must have a $35 E-ZPass device to pay the cashless tolls or one set to “HOV” (high-occupancy vehicle) mode to earn the free rides. Motorcycles are exempt.
Drivers heading through the area without the devices will have their license plate pictures taken and the bills sent home – plus a $12.50 fee. Law enforcement also will be on the lookout for solo drivers who have their vehicles’ devices set to HOV mode, and those drivers could face fines of $250, according to Fox 5.
“It’s dynamically priced…basically that’s an algorithm that measures congestion, and as the congestion increases the toll increases, and as the congestion goes down, the toll decreases,” Virginia Department of Transportation Tolling Division Administrator David Caudill told WTOP.
It was not immediately clear though whether accidents or construction work would cause prices to spike.
The station estimates the state hopes to haul in around $18 million in tolls in the first year of the project.
Revenue will go toward the funding of express buses and bike sharing stations, and lawmakers have agreed to add a lane to a stretch of I-66 eastbound as part of a compromise for allowing tolling, WMAL reported.
“For 30 years, they tried to get a deal done on 66 inside the Beltway. Arlington was always against it,” WMAL quoted Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe telling reporters last week. “I’m very proud we finally got a deal done.”
The governor’s office did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Fox News.